'Passing On' – Santé Theatre Warwick
‘Passing On’ is an ethnodrama which, by definition, aims to open up discussion on issues surrounding death and the healthcare system in the UK. It uses verbatim text taken from three years of research on end-of-life care conducted by Warwick University in a local hospital. The play’s aim is apparently “to explore the issues and dilemmas confronting relatives and health professionals during end of life care.”
So this is theatre with a couple of differences: each show is accompanied by a post-show panel discussion with the director, a researcher and a health professional, and even the feedback forms on our seats ask us whether we might allow ourselves to be contacted after six months to see whether the play has affected our lives in any way.
With script-editing and collaging by the award winning Mike Kenny (best known for his 2008 adaptation of ‘The Railway Children’), and collaborative puppetry support from Little Angel Theatre, the team have brought the clinical research to life to make a piece of theatre that’s moving and thought-provoking.
Starting with the chaplain, a host of characters from doctors, to paramedics, to porters, tell us their stories in a way that gives us a kaleidoscopic view of hospitals and care homes. Each character tells their story using different accents, with surprising and entertaining quirks, such as offering the audience biscuits on a food-round. The collective result creates a rich concoction of perspectives that reveal the sad, bitter-sweet, shocking and even the funny side of looking after a loved one in their final days.
Jim and Joyce are a lovable bungalow-dwelling couple whose story holds the whole narrative together. Throughout the play, with interjections from the hospital staff, they tell the story of how they looked after Joyce’s mother when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her mid-80s. Their story recounts the last few months of her life, as she moved from their bungalow, to a care home, to a hospital.
The character of Joyce's mother is a life-sized puppet, who arrives being pushed through the audience in a wheelchair. She’s made with light corrugated cardboard, with sharp angular facial features, a sunken ribcage and bandaged legs. As a puppet, she’s directly manipulated by Joyce and her partner as they switch between retrospective storytelling and bringing her to life to illustrate their story. The peak of sadness and gripping realism comes as they both move her from her bed to her day chair, helping her to move her legs and her zimmerframe, offering her warm encouragement along the way.
Without convincing breath work, a puppet can’t be seen as convincingly alive – which a character dying of lung cancer all the more dramatic. Joyce (Alison Belbin) masters the puppet’s breath carefully and skillfully – particularly in the final scenes of the play, when she co-ordinates her own narration with the sound of dying breath as her mother passes on.
Throughout the show I was sitting next to a good friend who works as a health professional. As each new character laid out their story, she was nodding and chuckling with recognition. When the play finished she elbowed me and said “It’s so true – all of it – amazing.”
Santé Theatre Warwick
In association with Little Angel Theatre